Christian School Questioned Over Discipline for Wayward
By Rick Bragg
New York Times, July 5, 2001
NEWARK, Mo., July 4 — Charles Sharpe made millions in the insurance business, then decided to use his wealth to make the world a better place, one child at a time.
Called by God, he said, he established a nondenominational Christian school for troubled children and teenagers who had passed through juvenile courts, foster care and broken homes.
"I always thought that doing good, you wouldn't offend people," said the 73-year-old Mr. Sharpe, whose Heartland Christian Academy in rural northeastern Missouri uses old-time religion and old-fashioned discipline to try to save the lives and souls of its students. The teachers do not spare the rod — here, it is a paddle — and they expect children to pray.
But now, five staff members at the school have been charged with multiple counts of felony child abuse. They are accused of taking discipline too far, forcing students to stand in pits of cow manure at a dairy near the school as punishment for misbehavior.
Eleven students, ages 13 to 17, were taken to concrete basins at a dairy farm and ordered into the cow manure as punishment for such infractions as fighting, being disrespectful to their instructors, not paying attention in class and having a bad attitude, said Sheriff David Parrish of Lewis County.
Workers at the dairy, which is owned by Mr. Sharpe, said they saw children standing in manure in depths ranging from their ankles to their chests, and saw another student smeared with the manure from head to toe, Sheriff Parrish said.
Last week, the five staff members were arrested, charged and released on bond, and the 11 children were removed from the school and taken into state custody.
"All we want, now, is what's right for the kids," said Sheriff Parrish, who said he feared that the students might become sick from infections from bacteria in the manure.
Mr. Sharpe, who said he had stopped the manure punishment more than six weeks before the arrests, said that the charges of child abuse were false and that the witnesses' descriptions were exaggerated or dead wrong.
He said the punishment in the manure was abandoned because it was bad public relations, not because he considered it illegal or abusive, or a health risk.
"When I die, I'll either go to heaven or hell, and I won't go to heaven if I am abusing kids," said Mr. Sharpe, a politically influential backer of organized school prayer and conservative lawmakers, and a longtime friend of John Ashcroft, the United States attorney general and former senator from Missouri.
Mr. Sharpe said the students were sent to work in the manure, not stand in it. They used shovels to move manure from one place to another, as punishment, he said. They never were forced to stand in deep manure, or to stand, period, he said. They worked, he said, mucking out sections of the basins.
There is no apparent outcry from parents.
Of the 11 students who were removed from the school by the State Division of Family Services, eight have been returned to the school by their parents or legal guardians, and another is expected to come back to the school any day, Mr. Sharpe said.
That would not have happened, he said, if the charges were valid.
"I've shoveled manure my whole life, and I'm still having some shoveled on me," said Mr. Sharpe, who was born in rural Missouri and reared on a farm before going on to riches as the founder of the Ozark National Life Insurance Company in Kansas City, Mo.
The students did work in manure that was at times thigh-deep, some staff members said. The boy who was seen smeared with the manure from head to toe had fallen down, and was soon hosed off, a spokesman for Mr. Sharpe said.
Sheriff Parrish said some of the students told him they had been forced to stay in the manure for as long as an hour and a half. Mr. Sharpe said the longest time of the punishment was 30 minutes.
It is, Mr. Sharpe conceded, a dirty job and that is why it was used as punishment.
The main manure basin is a powerful-smelling dump of drying and thick, congealing excrement. But its smell is not so powerful as the separating pool where the manure runs into a lagoon. The students worked both places.
Workers said they used machines to handle the manure from the dairy farm's 7,000 cows, which produce 28,000 pounds of manure a day. They said that sometimes afterbirth from calving was put in the manure pits.
It was workers at the dairy who notified county authorities of the punishment by calling a child abuse hotline. "I've had beating my whole life, and I don't think that's right," said a worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But put them in the pit? That's horrible."
Mr. Sharpe said the real abuse was the way the children lived in the world outside this complex of brick houses and concrete and metal buildings here in thousands of acres of corn, pasture and rolling hills.
Inside the school, which has 227 students, about half of them considered troubled children or teenagers from around the country, they find a haven from abuse, neglect, drugs, school shootings, pregnancy and hopelessness, he said.
No student here, Mr. Sharpe said, goes to school afraid of guns. "They live better than any time in their lives here," he said.
But county officials said the punishment could not be viewed as anything except abuse. "It is my professional opinion that these actions were abusive in nature, for any youth," said Michael Waddle, chief juvenile officer of the Second Circuit Court, which includes Lewis County. "And it's our job to make sure all the kids in this state are safe."
Mr. Sharpe is fighting back with a lawsuit.
The Heartland Academy Community Church and CNS International Ministries, both headed by Mr. Sharpe, filed a lawsuit on Monday in Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against Lewis County, as well as Sheriff Parrish, Deputy Sheriff Patricia McAfee and Mr. Waddle.
The lawsuit contends that the county and its investigators have conducted a "systematic, persistent and continuous campaign of harassment" against the faculty, staff and community at Heartland, by unlawfully removing the students from the school and interrogating them.
The suit says Mr. Waddle and Mr. Parrish spoke with the parents and guardians of some of the 11 students and told them that Heartland was engaging in abuse and neglect and encouraged them to remove their children from the school.
The suit claims that the arrests and charges caused the students, their families and the faculty and staff at Heartland to suffer from "humiliation, mental anguish, inconvenience."
County officials have called Heartland a "cult" and "little Waco," the lawsuit says.
"The most frustrating part of this entire episode is that these baseless charges threaten to overwhelm the enormous good we've done at Heartland, the dozens of lives we've turned around, the many families we've helped heal," Mr. Sharpe said. "We do work within the limits of the pertinent laws, but we do not intend to run things the way the state does. That system already has failed these kids."
Elijah Reese drove more than 400 miles from Memphis to pick up his son Coradell Baggett after he received a call from Mr. Waddle, in which he heard about the treatment his 14-year-old son had received.
"He's back here with me because they weren't treating him right," Mr. Reese said. "That's inhumane treatment. That's stuff you do to prisoners of war, not kids."
But Douglas Gardner, whose son Douglas Gardner Jr. was one of the students punished in the manure pits, immediately returned his son to the school. Mr. Gardner said he thought the school had made his son a better person.
"Heartland's made a 100 percent turnaround in his school work, attitude, morale," Mr. Gardner said. "They're doing a fantastic job, and the county is doing something they shouldn't be doing."
The Heartland complex is in two counties, with the main buildings in Shelby County and the dairy farm in Lewis County. The Heartland complex is Shelby County's biggest employer, and people's attitudes about the place seem to range from gratitude and admiration for the way the school tries to help people to disinterest or suspicion. Most people here said they minded their own business.
Mr. Sharpe said the arrests of his five staff workers left him "outraged."
"For the first time in my life," he said, "I'm a little disillusioned about what America has become."
A hearing on the charges is set for later this month. A spokesman for Mr. Sharpe said he did not expect the charges to stand.
"A group of little men thinks they can stop God?" Mr. Sharpe said. "No."